TVD Live: Colin Meloy and Eleanor Friedberger at the Lincoln Theatre, 11/5

In the ‘90s, when I was a teenager, well before the days of a thriving internet, before everyone had a phone in their pocket capable of producing and sharing photos and videos with the world, before you could search any subject and find loads of information at will, music lovers relied on other ways to find and hear new music.

We relied heavily on things like word of mouth, record stores, compilation CDs, mix tapes, and attending as many shows as possible to hear new sounds. We would regularly go to the nearest record store to pick up a copy of Maximum Rock and Roll and to get new show schedules and fliers for nearby venues. We even relied on late-night TV programs and tuned into shows like 120 Minutes and Head Bangers Ball that aired in the wee hours of the weekend. One of the most unique and enjoyable shows for me was a series called Unplugged.

For those of you who weren’t cutting your own food in the ‘90s, Unplugged was a series featured on MTV back in the days when they actually played music on music television. The series started in 1989 and continued until around 1999. The format for the show was just as you’d expect, musicians and bands playing mostly acoustic instruments. The series featured a number of artists including some memorable performances by The Cure, Bob Dylan, Nirvana, Duran Duran, Oasis, Neil Young, Alice in Chains, and once even spotlighted a Page/Plant acoustic reunion titled “UnLedded.” What the Unplugged series showed its audiences is not only how beautiful the music can be when it’s stripped down and plain in its simplest form, but also just how talented some of the performers could be at their rawest and most candid moments.

In the case of Colin Meloy playing his sold out show at The Lincoln Theatre in DC last Tuesday night, it was a chance to see the performer take a pause from his usual lead role with his lovely band The Decemberists and play solo. It was also a chance for his audience to be treated to a more stripped-down version of his songwriting efforts. Unlike the overwhelmingly beautiful sounds that fill the stage at Decemberist shows, Meloy simply stood before the crowd with a acoustic guitar and a microphone, stripped bare from his usual band mates and very much unplugged.

Meloy, whose vocals are so unique and vibrant, can seemingly project his voice over the entire theater even without a microphone; his voice at times would even project slightly over the microphone. The strength of his vocals is that of ten men, and he could easily cut through any live sound mix. Playing in this acoustic environment, it really emphasizes the power and style of his voice. To put things simply, he gave the Lincoln Theatre’s crowd a stunning performance and an experience that I will always remember fondly.

He played crowd favorites that spanned his entire career, including a new unreleased song and a lullaby he plays for his son about eating his oatmeal. He even managed to abruptly take one request from a gentleman that Meloy referred to jokingly as “the bold young man in the crowd,” who managed to start a dialog with Meloy about halfway through his set by yelling through the quietness of the crowd, “Hey, Colin!” The bold young man requested “Shiny.”

Between his songs, Meloy spoke briefly to the crowd about his trip to the Smithsonian Natural History Museum that morning and then went on to say how he wanted some crowd participation through the night. “I don’t expect you all to sing. Some of you are more well-suited then others,” he said, asking attendees to hum along with and then giving some instruction to the melody of the song that followed, “January Hymn.” Later when referring to “Apology Song,” he said, “this song was meant to be played over the phone.” Before he strummed the opening cords for “Oceanside,” he stated, “Some of these songs are about exactly what they sound like they’re about,” then “Whatever you think they are about, you’re probably right,” and “Here’s one about the ocean, among other things.” His sharp wit and humor continued through the night.

This is Meloy’s fourth solo tour to date. Early into his set, he explained to the audience about a little tradition he fell into while doing his first solo tour. Meloy covers a few songs by another artist for each tour and releases them as a tour-only EP. Past artists’ covers include Colin singing Morrissey, Shirley Collins, and Sam Cooke. In preparation for this tour, Meloy said he drew five albums from his record collection that interested him. He landed on a record by The Kinks. Ray Davies himself would be proud of Meloy’s live version of “Do You Remember Walter.”

For the last song before his encore, Meloy spun a tale for the audience, imagining the entire crowd transcending high above DC in some out-of-body experience that even included politicians John Boehner and Ted Cruz singing around a campfire. I guess that’s what being in Washington can do to your subconscious if you’re not careful.

By the time Meloy put down his guitar to leave the stage, the entire theater was on its feet applauding. No one had even thought about leaving to make way for the door. Everyone simply stood still clapping wanting more from the already remarkable performance. A fast few minutes later, Meloy made his way back to his guitar and humbly played two of his most beloved songs for his encore, “The Crane Wife.”

Meloy’s set list included “July July,” “Calamity Song,” “Oceanside,” “January Hymn,” and “Bandit Queen.” For his encore, Meloy played “The Crane Wife 1 & 2” and “The Crane Wife 3.” Eleanor Friedberger of The Fiery Furnaces had the honor of being the night’s opener.

Eleanor Friedberger

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